Rural broadband

Here in the rural areas of the United Kingdom we have waited patiently for broadband to reach us. We have made do with expensive satellites and community WiFi for a decade. Many homes are still on dial up, with no mobile coverage in many places.

Now there is a government initiative to bring ’superfast’ broadband to everyone, but the funding is going to the incumbent who will deploy cabinets (Also Known As FTTC) which do not go to rural properties so this will not help us as we are still too far away from the cabinets to get a good connection. To solve this problem we decided a few years ago to look into the possibility of building our own Next Generation Access fibre network.

We found a lot of skills within our community and working together we made a business plan. We knew that in order to be sustainable we would need to be big enough to be able to lease a “dark fibre” to the nearest peering centre and we figured if we concentrated on areas of very poor or non-existent connectivity we would get high take-up. We decided to work from the ‘outside in’ because we knew rural demand is greater due to distance from services.

This plan worked, and we asked the people and businesses in eight rural parishes to invest in their own network, a community enterprise called B4RN The people invested enough to build the core and digging commenced at the end of March 2012. We are also raising funding by our ‘sponsor a metre’ project, people can donate £5 (€6) to have their name written on some ducting before it is ‘dug in’.

The community have started digging to the core to connect their houses and businesses. This week the equipment is being installed in the peering center in Manchester, the parish hub is powered up and the first connections are due to go live in the next couple of weeks. This is what is known as an ‘altnet’, an alternative to an incumbent telecom company who doesn’t find it economical to supply sparse population density. Using the ingenuity of a business or an active community, it is possible to build your own, build it once, build it right, and make sure it is sustainable.

B4RN has just won the internet hero award, so even our peers, the other ISPs recognise its success.

If we want a Digital Europe we will have to help and support many of these altnets and they will cover increasing tranches of the rural landscape, rejuvenating the villages that the digital revolution has left behind for the past decade.

An added bonus to the altnets is that as they creep closer to the urban fringes the difference in quality of service will be noticed and they will start to harvest

customers from suburbia, which will provide the incentive incumbent companies need to upgrade their service from copper to fibre. Market forces will deliver a win/win solution to the country. This is the best way to enable the people to help themselves and get a ‘futureproof’ solution for future generations.

If I had any power in Europe I would do everything I could to help the altnets. We need a level playing field, a tax break on Valuation Office Agency (Council) tax, an easy way to access soft loans which we can pay back over time as the network is built, and funding/support/ for start-ups.

I know we have Neelie’s support; now we need the support from everyone in Europe to build a network of fibre. Moral and Optic. Let’s get this continent rocking!

(This is a crowd-sourced blog post by Chris Condor from Broadband 4 the Rural North project in England)

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Neelie Kroes Blog (Europa)

Neelie Kroes is Vice President of the European Commission, responsible for the Digital Agenda for Europe

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